Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Projecting an identity through fashion in flight

Everyday is a fashion show and the world is your runway. – Coco Chanel

Qantas c. 1986 /
Design by YSL
During a recent visit to the International Terminal at San Francisco International Airport, everywhere I looked there were colorful displays showcasing a history of airline uniforms worn by airline passenger-service and safety professionals – once called stewardesses and hostesses, and more recently flight attendants. This distinct type of fashionable attire – from haute couture to comfortable mix and match – has become a part of our popular culture. As I looked over the uniforms and learned more about them, I realized that not only have I been flying as an airline passenger for many years, but it made me nostalgic for travel when flying from destination to destination was fun and exciting instead of a stressful exercise in navigating from Point A to Point B.

Pan American c. 1975
Design by Edith Head
In Fashion in Flight: A History of Airline Uniform Design, on display in SFO's International Terminal Main Hall and the Aviation Museum & Library through January 2017, the seventy uniforms that comprise the exhibition date from 1930 to 2016 and include the work of a veritable who's who of more than thirty designers, including: Bill Blass, Piere Cardin, Oleg Cassini, Halston, Edith Head, Ralph Lauren, Valentino and Yves Saint Laurent. The long list of their clients includes past and present U.S. airlines such as American, Braniff, Continental, Delta, TWA and United, as well as international carriers Aeroméxico, Air France, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, Qantas and Virgin Atlantic.

The vibrant and colorful outfits and accessories in Fashion in Flight are designed to not only "signify a distinct role in the workplace," but they also project a sense of identity for each airline – and they reflect prevailing fashions of the times, too. Through the years as airline fashion evolves and hemlines lift up and touch down, the passenger cabin has become a different kind of fashion runway.

Fashion statement /
United Airlines c. 1968 by Jean Louis.
If style is primarily a matter of instinct, as the American fashion designer Bill Blass suggests, then decade by decade, one notices a transformation from the tailored-suit look of the late 1930s to WWII's military influence, from postwar Paris haute couture to stylish New York designs – even interstellar chic as the 60s space age takes off. With the age of jet travel booming, bringing with it highly expressive uniforms, flight attendant fashion takes center stage. By the late 1970s, I learned, "pluralism and neo-traditionalism are seen emerging" and continuing into the '90s.

Finally, the business-like look of uniforms we see today – especially on U.S.-based carriers such as American, Delta and United – "have allowed greater contrast and noticeability for airlines that continue to engage celebrated designers in order to present contemporary fashion as an important part of the air travel experience."

Cover photo: Braniff International Airways hostess in uniform by Emilio Pucci c. 1965.
Cover photo and United Airlines photo: Courtesy of San Francisco Airport Commission, www.flysfo.com
Qantas and Pan American photos by Michael Dickens © 2016.

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